Thursday, March 15, 2018

Under the Sea

I have long been afraid of the water. Specifically deep water, meaning anything deeper than my rib cage. I have no idea why. Past-life enthusiasts would probably tell me I drowned a few centuries ago, given my completely irrational fear of being submerged in pools, lakes, oceans, bathtubs… Even those deep blue pages in atlases showing the terrain of the ocean floor produce waves of anxiety. Seriously.

Over the years I have very intentionally put myself in watery situations in an attempt to conquer my aquaphobia. I have gone on cruises, I have taken boat rides, I have vacationed in beach-side rentals.

Determined not to miss out on the thrill of living, I have hyperventilated and worn life vests while snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef and the Sea of Cortez. The fishies are so very beautiful, as long as they stay away from me. I’m afraid of them, too.

Last year, when Rob and I were on a Caribbean cruise snorkel excursion, I got to use an almost brand-new snorkel and mask. I was amazed that hardly any water seeped into my mask or mouthpiece, that I didn’t have to resurface frequently to flail about while trying to clear everything out. I honestly thought that anxiety-ridden flail-and-clear thing was just part of snorkeling. Turns out it’s just part of snorkeling with well-used rental equipment.

This new insight was a game changer.

And so, with a March Maui trip on the horizon, Rob got me a Christmas gift certificate for the local dive shop (we have just one --- which is different from the local dive bar of which we have many). When I went to go choose my snorkel and mask, I was delighted to learn that masks come in sizes. Sizes! Meaning the mask would actually fit my face! WHOO HOO!

Hoping for something pink, yellow, or neon orange such that I could be easily located and potentially rescued while flailing and hyperventilating, I was a bit disappointed that my snorkel color options were blue. A nice dark blue to apparently blend into the oceanic surroundings. I guess when you’re the only game in town you get to be Henry Ford. Boo.

Nevertheless, I was totally stoked and rather astonished to proudly possess my very own snorkeling equipment. Me, who is supposedly terrified of the ocean and all creatures great and small that inhabit it.

We packed the mask and breather thingy in our suitcase and hauled them to Maui last week for their inaugural use in the Ka’anapali waters. Spoiler alert: they were awesome!

I feel pretty bad-ass in my surfer girl swim shirt, too.
And no, I shall never ever surf.

It took Rob and me a few days to discern the best snorkel spot. Maui was new to us, so we asked lots of locals and consulted several guidebooks.

Although the beach right in front our resort was rated the best snorkel venue on the island, it was completely open ocean. No exposed reefs or natural barriers to give me a cozy sense of structure and protection.

Another recommendation was called Baby Beach. While offering very minimal waves and water you could stand up in, it was also extraordinarily popular with young families and their Little Swimmers®.

“Ummm….I don’t want to snorkel here.”

“Why not? It looks pretty safe. Look at all the kids.”

“Too many bodily fluids.”

Come on, I know the ocean is big but I can’t be the only one who thinks of these things. Can I? Ewww.

We finally settled on Black Rock. It was a snuggly beach right up against a rock...that a hotel chain had incorporated into its beachy landscape. There were lots of people snorkeling, which gave me a sense of safety in numbers. The rock also promised to be a good fish attractant.

We snorkeled there two days in a row. It really was a great spot. My mask stayed well-suctioned and my mouthpiece never filled with salty water. WHO KNEW!?!

We got to see some of the same types of fish we are used to seeing in Kauai. The flat yellow ones, the striped ones with wispy fins, the zippy zebra ones, the long pointy silver ones, my favorite pink and turquoise rainbow trouty ones. I’m clearly not an ichthyologist. Nevertheless, seeing those old nameless fishy friends gave me great comfort.

We also got to meet some new sea friends. Sort of.

Our arrival was announced by some bright yellow trumpetfish. We also spotted a totally camouflaged flounder who looked entirely like sand and nothing like the adorable yellow and blue guy in “The Little Mermaid.”

I got stared down by a couple of cuttlefish. I mean totally stared down. They were only about the size of my hand but they were fearless. I was not. Twice I tried to intimidate the cuttles by glaring into their buggy, disproportionately large, glassy eyes. Twice I got freaked out as they arrogantly fringed closer to my mask and made me flail out of their way in defeat. Mollusks are scary, man!

But not as scary as sea turtles.

We had seen turtles in Kauai. From the land and from a distance. Very graceful, peaceful creatures when viewed from above.

We had some warning that there were some sea turtles floating around Black Rock. The crowd of tourists lining the shore with waterproof cameras and shrieks of “TURTLE!!!” was our first clue.

While I wanted to see a turtle while snorkeling, I wanted to see it over there. In the distance. Going the other way. I wanted to admire it from afar, as I like to enjoy most aquatic life.

Rob and I were snorkeling about, holding hands as we do to give us both piece of mind (it’s easier for Rob to know where his trepidatious wife is if she’s hanging onto him). Rob squeezed my hand and pointed ahead of us with his other, signaling that something noteworthy was in sight.

Gradually coming into focus in the sandy water was a sea turtle, heading right towards me. Its shell was about the size of an XL pizza pan. Not a dainty sea creature.

As the turtle got closer, I noticed its mouth…which was opening and closing…was unexpectedly large and had some impressively pointy teeth in it. Pretty certain the turtle was planning to eat me, I rather gracefully slid down Rob’s leg and climbed onto his back. Within seconds, Rob and I were tandem snorkeling…with no warning to Rob that we were transitioning to this new approach.

I could hear Rob snorkel laughing as the turtle glided past us, me deftly clinging to Rob’s other leg now. To anyone watching…including the turtle…I prefer to think it merely looked like I was courteously giving the turtle the right-of-way and not cowering in terror on Rob.

Spinning around, we watched the turtle slowly soar away from us. Instead of paddling like I was expecting, its front flippers flapped up and down to propel forward through the water, looking a lot like Sister Bertrille from “The Flying Nun.” It was quite endearing, really, once I knew I was no longer being eyed as turtle kibble.

Imagine a greenish yellow habit and Sally Field
opening and closing her mouth and I swear...sea turtle.

We saw another turtle the next day. Rob was better prepared for tandem snorkeling this time. The second turtle was a bit larger, however, more like a VW Beetle. I casually signaled its location to the camera-ready tourists on the beach by flailing, flopping, and thrashing about in the water to get out of its way. There might have been an accusation or two of “IT’S STALKING ME!” For not being a strong swimmer, it really was quite impressive how quickly I got to the other side of the beach.

The rest of our snorkel adventure was peaceful and uneventful, save for the constant need to clear my long gray hair from in front of my mask. I am absolutely not used to having longish hair on my head, so I was completely unprepared with any means of keeping it held back.

Back home, I acquired a 4-pack of black headbands like what fashionable teen soccer girls wear. I am embarrassed to say how long it took me to find the headbands in Walgreens. I don’t do hair accessories; I don’t even own a comb or brush. I kept trying to figure out why “Long” headbands were the size of bracelets. I eventually moved to another section with long headbands that were actually long and not ones described by their holding power. Goodness, girl hair is confusing.

It took me far too long to figure out there's a
grippy side and a "pretty" side to the band.
Oy, how do you girls do this??

One of our last purchases in Maui was a pink flowered cinch bag that has officially been deemed My Snorkel Bag. It has my headbands in it, too. I’m quite tickled that I have such a bag and am already musing about other non-turtle locations I might take it to.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Finding comfort in a dog head

Back in November, my aunt and I were comparing schedules to try to find a good date to officially celebrate my grandma’s life and inter her ashes in a San Francisco cemetery with my grandpa. I looked at the February calendar.

“What do you think about doing Grandma’s Celebration of Life on 10 Feb? Too weird or too perfect?” I texted to my aunt. She is retired military so I try to remember to talk dates in her language.

“Too karma [with a hug emoji]” she replied. And so the decision was made.

On February 10, 1976 my grandpa – my aunt’s dad and Grandma’s husband – died of a sudden and totally unexpected heart attack. I had just turned 8 and Linda was just a couple weeks away from turning 16. Although she was twice my age at the time, in reality we were both just kids.

The next hours and days were a blurry whirlwind of emotion and action. My aunt and grandma were in California. My parents and I were living in Montana. Within hours I was on a plane with my parents, taking a film roll's worth of photos of the mesmerizing clouds. I wondered if that was where Grandpa was now.

Other somewhat distant relatives trickled in from Michigan. It seemed like none of them had ever been to California before, so their funeral trip had an undertone of vacation. At least that what felt like to my wide-eyed 8-year-old self who had no idea what grieving looked like.

I can’t quite remember the order of events – it’s been 42 years and I was in second grade – but I think we all gathered in San Francisco a day or two before Grandpa’s funeral. Enough time for some awkward sightseeing.

It’s perfectly natural that my dad was the tour guide. I have no idea if he was appointed or if he simply saw a void and filled it. Either way, he lead a small caravan of family around the streets of San Francisco one foggy February night.

I’m sure we hit the highlights. The Golden Gate Bridge must have been visible, and we had to have twisted and turned down Lombard.

I vividly remember our tour of Chinatown. It was a very busy night, probably in anticipation of the Chinese New Year now that I think about it. It was loud and lively, with people smushed together on all the narrow sidewalks as my dad captained my grandma’s enormous 1970s white Pontiac. I was sitting on the starboard side on my mom’s lap…because you could live on the edge like that in 1976.

I can’t remember if my dad was doing anything other than steering, but suddenly the windshield wipers went haywire and the horn started blaring. Blaring without stop. A constant wail of a hearty, American-made 1970s car horn.

Everyone in Chinatown stopped and stared. Literally everyone, at least as far as I was concerned. People were pointing, laughing, my dad pushing buttons and flipping switches. Being eight, I was instantly mortified. I deftly slid off my mom’s lap into the footwell and tangled myself up in her feet. I was so embarrassed to have everyone looking at us!

I hung out with my mom’s shoes for quite a while. My dad kept driving. The horn kept blaring. I was horrified.

At some point a motorcycle cop entered the story. I’m guessing the horn summoned him. Adult conversations about messed up electrical systems happened. Then all I knew was our tour caravan was heading back to the hotel south of the city, now with a police escort.

But believe it or not, that was not the part of the evening that became a family story. No, that honor goes to the Doggie Diner.

The Doggie Diner was a small, Bay Area fast-food chain that started in 1949 (apparently closing for good in 1986). It specialized in hot dogs, as one might surmise. I am dumbfounded I never ate there. As a kid I was a ridiculously picky eater (hard to fathom now). Pretty much the only thing I would eat was hot dogs. I was a huge fan of Der Weinerschnitzel…and very brand loyal…so it is quite possible I refused to try The Doggie Diner even if offered. Silly little girl.

I therefore can not speak to the quality of the Doggie’s fare, but I can tell you that the Diners had by far the best signage EVER. Every Doggie Diner was capped by a 7-foot fiberglass weinerdog wearing a chef’s hat and bowtie. It was adorable if not a little creepy.

I’m not sure where we were heading during that portion of the tour that night, but we were out on 19th Avenue near San Francisco State. We might have been heading to the Golden Gate Bridge or Golden Gate Park. Or at least trying to.

When we passed the Doggie Diner on the corner of 19th Avenue and Junipero Serra, I was very excited and made sure everyone in the car admired the huge dog head.

A couple of minutes later, we saw another dog head. WOW! I had no idea there was another diner so close! So excited!

Then a few minutes later, another dog head! And then another!

The memories of an 8-year-old have their own reality, but I am going to say we passed at least four or five Doggie Diners that night. Except that, well, we didn’t.

My dad, who typically has a keen sense of direction, somehow got twisted around by the one-way streets and opaque fog banks. We actually circled the same San Francisco block multiple times, with the same Doggie Diner head first greeting us then mocking us with wide-eyed judgement on each drive-by.

I remember it being confusing at first. And then frustrating. And then, with the raw emotion of a funeral looming the next day, belly-achingly hysterical. The entire car was relieved to be crying with joy instead of despair as we circled that enormous glowing dog head again and again and again.

Today, after seeing the patch of grass tamped back down in front of Grandpa’s headstone which Grandma will now share, I asked Rob if we could take a little detour on our way to the airport.

It was a sparklingly gorgeous San Francisco day. No chance of getting lost in the fog this time.

Mr. Google had already told me that the Doggie Diner on 19th Avenue was long gone.

However, in true San Francisco fashion, the head from the very last Doggie Diner was saved and lovingly restored. Not only does it have a commemorative plaque, the head is an official San Francisco Landmark (no. 254) described as “…an excellent example of a three-dimensional iconic and flamboyant roadside commercial sign and is unique and rare in design.” Confirming its credibility, it is also a landmark on Google maps.

The past few days have been a wonderous swirl of emotions as we honored, remembered, celebrated, and released Grandma to her final resting place. It was a weekend of reminiscing and tears, with each other and with our own thoughts. For each of us, the oddest things would jog a memory or tears or smiles of gratitude and recognition.

Thanks for the memories, Doggie Diner Head. You were just what I needed today.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Fully disembarked

We’ve been home for about four days now. This morning Rob finally proclaimed himself feeling human again. He’s out at his favorite burrito place getting lunch so that’s as official as it gets that he’s back to his normal routine.

I probably have a couple more days before I’m fully “back.” I keep getting sleepy at about 9:00pm, which is ridiculous for this diehard night owl.

I also brought home an unwanted souvenir. I’m on my second tube of hydrocortisone cream and my rash is finally doing much better. It started in Montevideo (about 3 days before the end of our cruise). At first I thought it was a heat rash, even though it really wasn’t hot or humid enough to warrant that diagnosis. I finally concluded that expired laundry detergent was the culprit. Yes, I have a history with out-of-date products.

I have to admit, I can’t actually remember when I bought the two travel packets of liquid Tide that I tucked in our suitcase. At least three...but more likely five...years ago if I’m willing to risk embarrassment.

Truth be told, it didn’t look quite as vibrantly blue when I was squeezing it into the washer tub in the ship’s laundry. Maybe a tinge of greenish brown to it?? Seven loads of hot water laundry later, I have hopefully removed all traces of the irritating, ancient Tide. I was also relieved to get home and have non-Tided clothes to choose from. So, lesson learned: if I must do laundry on vacation, treat myself to new detergent.

Rashes aside, as I reflect on our trip, I continue to be amazed that we went. When Rob and I first got married, he had absolutely no interest in international travel. Twenty-seven years and several continents later, he still gets a little twitchy when I start musing about across-oceans places I’d love to visit. But Rob also now tells me he appreciates me dragging him out of his domestic comfort zone now and then. I'm very grateful that he's willing to explore with me.

Cruising has been a huge discovery for us. It allows the comfort of an established, English-speaking home base that sails from unfamiliarity to unfamiliarity. And we’ve learned how to be true to our introverted selves while traveling with 3,000 sea buddies. Top tip: you can request a “table for two, no sharing” in the dining rooms. Score!

This particular cruise had a notably different vibe. The passengers were much more international than any other cruise I have been on, including the Mediterranean and the Holy Land. We met folks from Croatia, France, Holland, Canada, Australia, Wales, England… (we didn’t always request a table for two).

We didn’t meet anyone from the Pacific Northwest, although it was crazy how many people had a young relative who lives in Portland. I felt very hip. Oddly, the place we met the most passengers from was…Ohio. All I can figure is the South America Tourism Board targeted Cleveland, and it worked wonders.

This cruise was also the first time all ship-wide announcements were made in two languages (English and Spanish). I gotta say, after 32 hours of travel, having to sit through an insanely long bilingual safety drill that first day was almost unbearable. We eventually got used to tuning out the second version of any announcement, but it did make for some long PA chatter at times.

We also noticed that despite us both now being in our 50s, we were among the younger passengers. There was a gaggle of about a dozen teens that clung to each other, but otherwise most folks were in their 60s and 70s. I have never seen so many canes on a cruise before, and that only increased as the rough waters bumped folks around a bit.

A lot of passengers were very frequent cruisers, too. You can tell a Princess passenger’s status by the color of their cruise card and their name plate outside their cabin. There were more people in the most fancypants “I live to cruise” Elite category than I have ever seen. And very few (like less than 10 that I saw) “first time cruising with Princess” badges. Please note: I absolutely aspire to that “Live to Cruise” category, in large part for the perk of free laundry any old time you want. Presumably without rashes.

It will come as a surprise to nobody that fins-up, my most favorite part of the trip was seeing penguins. Oh my gosh, the sheer joy and delight of that afternoon in Bluff Cove will forever be a cherished memory. I wish I could bottle the emotions of that day; it was so full of life and enchantment and appreciation and wonder. It could not have been more perfect. That afternoon alone was worth everything it took to get there.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the weather. We really had fantastic weather the entire time. It was sunny and warm. It was howling and rough. It was cold and biting. I packed for all seasons and wore just about everything I brought. I loved that the seas were rough around Cape Horn. If it had been a placid crossing, both Rob and I would have been enormously disappointed.

I never did get used to it being summer down there. Although we have been in warm, sunny places in the winter before, the common references to kids being on summer break and families being on vacation made it clear that January there is our July. Santa Claus in shorts and a tank top just seems wrong.

And so we are back home, where trees are dormant, leaves are mulching, and sandals are ill-advised. We have no idea where our next cruise or “big trip” will take us. Lots of things are being dreamed about and discussed; something will eventually be planned. Because the world is big and awaits discovery, and free laundry won’t happen by itself.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Adios Buenos Aires

Much to Rob’s delight and relief, we are currently in the air above Buenos Aires for our 30+ hours long trek back to Woodhaven.

Although I’m still piecing together how I feel about Argentina’s capital city, Rob is steadfastly not a fan. After only about one hour into a tour of the heavily populated city, Rob was staring wistfully at planes in the sky and doing mental calculations of how many hours until he could bid the city a good-riddance adios.

What left such a bad impression on Rob? Well…pretty much everything.

With 3.5 million residents within the city limits and 14 million in the outskirts, there were people every.where. Cars, motorcycles, buses, taxis, fast-walking pedestrians…Buenos Aires is a packed city on the go, which was a bit of a shock compared to all our other ports, not to mention Woodhaven. As you might have surmised, Rob is not a big city guy.

What put Rob on edge the most was the repeated reminders and warnings to keep our stuff safe, watch out for pick pockets, don’t wear necklaces since they will be snatched off your neck, be careful of taking selfies because your phone could be grabbed right out of your hand, keep nothing in back pockets, don’t let people brush up against you, backpacks are stupid, etc etc etc.

I can’t say I really blame Rob. Our first tour guide painted a pretty paranoid picture. I walked around with my travel purse – the one with a steel cable sewn into its strap and the double-zipper closure – worn diagonally across my chest. I will cut to the punchline right now – all our valuables are coming home with us. Phew!

We spent a day and a half in Buenos Aires. The first day we took two tours. In the morning, we toured the city including the La Boca neighborhood and the La Recoleta Cemetery (I had never heard of either site but apparently both are quite famous). In the evening, we attended a tango show which also included dinner.

The second day – today – we took a river boat cruise along the Tigre Delta north of town. Again, I had never heard of this place, but we needed a way to kill a few hours before heading to the airport for our evening flight.

The river cruise was fine but honestly the most forgettable part of our Buenos Aires adventure. It was mostly a relaxing ride through some islands with houses on them. We don’t know too much about the houses as the English narration had a strong German tinge to it and was difficult to understand.

Regardless, the river jaunt was decidedly better than spending yet 3 more hours in the Buenos Aires airport waiting to check in. As it was, we spent 6 people-watching-hours in the international airport with completely insufficient seating. We are thrilled to finally be making some progress here at 40,000 seats...with cushions.

Back to our first outing… our tour guide for the morning was brutally honest about Argentina and Buenos Aires. He wove such a dismal tale of crime, corruption, and economic and social instability, I actually wondered if he was really from Chile (Argentina and Chile are bigger rivals than the New England Patriots and everyone else).

Rob’s unfavorable impression of Buenos Aires was further reinforced by stories of the country’s largest zoo closing due to mismanagement and dead animals; Eva Peron’s body actually being stolen and going on a covert European vacay for a couple of decades; a multi-million-dollar, government-backed amusement park that is now closed due to corruption; and wage-fueled protests being everyday occurrences (we saw three), including ones that frequently close the world’s widest street (16 lanes). The current 30% inflation rate and 37% loan interest rate were mere cherries on the top of Rob’s “Buenos Aires Is a Pit” Sundae.

So with all of that, why I am wavering on my assessment of Rob’s newest thumbs-down city?

Well, in the midst of all of the corruption and crime, Buenos Aires is quite beautiful in some parts. Its architecture was heavily influenced by its unabashed copy-catting of all things Paris way back when.

The city has lots of trees (which had to be imported since Buenos Aires is actual in the pampa) and ornate marble buildings. At night it glows with yellow-hued street lamps and cafes filled with people having midnight chats. If you didn’t know to fear it, Buenos Aires could actually be quite seductive.

Speaking of which, the tango show we saw was amazing. Fearing it would be a cheesy tourist trap, it was actually a mesmerizing evening held in a restored art-deco theater with a fantastic meal (more Argentinian meat and wine! WHOO HOO!).

The troupe of dancers was young and nimble and slinky and whipped their knees around in ways that should have required immediate orthoscopic attention. The performance had no speaking; only live music from a string quartet with two accordions crashing the party.

Yet, without words the dancers told a story of love, seduction, adultery, jealousy. It was sort of like “The Nutcracker” but totally not at all. Definitely not an outing for kids. My goodness, the tango is quite sultry! I was so captivated, I only managed to take a few (rather blurry) photos because every time I watched the dancing through my camera’s lens, it broke the spell.

The tango show was sooooo much better than our visit earlier that afternoon to the gritty, warning-laden, crime infested La Boca neighborhood. It is in a bad part of town near an old port and is said to be the birthplace of tango.

Tango was actually first danced between men as they killed time in brothels waiting for the ladies to be available. It then (d)evolved into being danced between men and prostitutes. It only got accepted in high society when the French decided to be rebellious and started dancing it back home after vacations in Argentina.

There are two tiny streets in La Boca which are considered safe for tourists…and that’s only because there are police stationed at either end. The buildings are colorful and apparently iconic. For only $20, you could get a photo with some rough-around-the-edges tango dancers whose fishnet stockings were only a little torn. Needless to say, we declined the multiple offers.

After La Boca, we went to the La Recoleta Cemetery. It is famous because it is where Eva Peron’s body eventually ended up. It is also famous because it’s not a caskets-in-the-ground cemetery. It’s a little mini-city of ornate mausoleums, complete with street names. It was one of the oddest things I have ever seen.

The 1822 cemetery was a fenced in, guarded town of stone, marble, and granite mini-houses and mini-churches. Each structure had an address, windows, and locked doors. Each was inhabited by occupied caskets.

Our tour guide went into unexpectedly graphic detail about how the bodies are prepared and placed in sealed metal containers before being laid to rest in wooden caskets. This is to keep the little City of Death from stinking to high heaven.

I took the requisite photo of Eva Peron’s family mausoleum but really, the whole visit was just weird.

Rob felt a little better about Buenos Aires this morning when we got out into the suburbs a bit for the river cruise. Even so, all the windows had decorative metal bars on first-floor windows, and security cameras and guard huts were common sights. Rob continued to eye overhead air travel.

I guess overall I’d say that Buenos Aires is a nice city under extremely controlled circumstances, like under the watchful eye of police and in tango halls with a hundred other tourists. I’m very happy I got to visit Argentina’s capital…and the tango show will definitely remain a very fond memory. But I’m sort of happy to be in the air heading home, too.

I will undoubtedly post a recap blog at some point soonish. Got three more airports, five time zones, and I-don’t-want-to-think-about-it hours of travel to go first. Oy. But SOOO worth all the amazing once-in-a-lifetime experiences of the past two weeks (PENGUINS!!! GUANACOS!!! CAPE HORN!!!)

Thank you so much for coming along with me on my South American Half-Century Birthday Celebration! Hope you enjoyed the ride…without the benefit of Dramamine.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Cheers to Uruguay!

Before we booked this trip, if you had asked me where Uruguay was, I probably would have answered, “Ummm… Africa??” The country’s name has so many vowels, it’s a good guess, no?


Uruguay…for those who are not Jeopardy regulars…is a small South American country nestled between Argentina and Brazil on the east coast. It has a very important port and access to the Atlantic Ocean which inspired the British to help Uruguay fight for independence back in the early 1800s. Without independence from Spain, the Brits wouldn’t have been able to so easily trade for all the goodies Uruguay has to offer. Among Uruguay’s current exports: beef, lamb, citrus, blueberries, wine, leather, and wool.

The entire county has about 3.3 million residents, a third of which reside in its capital city of Montevideo. We were told cattle and sheep outnumber the country’s inhabitants by a ratio of 4 to 1…each. That’s a whole lotta livestock. And good eatin’.

We arrived in Montevideo this morning to the wafting aroma of natural gas. Not in an alert-the-captain way. More in the we’re-in-a-working-port way. Indeed, our ship was surrounded by cargo ships and containers and cranes.

Our original plan was to take a lovely old restored steam train through the Uruguayan countryside to a winery where we would tour the vineyards, sample wine, and feast on meatstuffs.

However, about 4 days ago we received a letter from the tour desk informing us that the train operators are on strike and our tour was therefore cancelled. BOO! In its place we were offered essentially the same tour but via bus instead of train. Clearly this is not the year for us and trains.

Naturally, we agreed to the substitute tour and wondered how the 3-hour train ride would be replaced by a 20-minute bus ride. Turns out, it was a great substitution and in the end, gave us a much better sense of the area than the train would have. A hard-learned rule of travel: go with the flow and search for the happy in any situation.

Our Grand Tour of Montevideo started in the business district. It oddly reminded me of downtown Seattle. Some hills (although not many – the place is predominantly flat), lots of trees, abundant smartly dressed worker folks. Instead of Starbucks cups, everyone was carrying little wooden mugs made out of gourds in one hand and a thermos of hot water in the other.

The energy-boosting beverage of choice in Uruguay is something called “mate” which is pronounced “mah-tah.” Although I didn’t have a chance to try it, it was described as an herb…not a tea…that is similar to green tea and turbocharged with caffeine.

Uruguayans fill their gourd with the mate leaves, pour hot water over them, and sip the steeped liquid through a silver spoon-straw. Apparently all day long. Best I can tell, they buy the leaves at grocery stores; there are not mate cafes where folks gather for free Wi-Fi and acoustic rock music.

Our bus tour took us past important statues and monuments, parks and beaches, old buildings and new shopping malls. The more we meandered, the more I grew to really dig this city I never knew existed.

Montevideo felt colonial and historic yet modern and capitalistic(ish). It had mature, tree-lined streets, and beaches that had hints of Hawaii’s Waikiki. There were tons of soccer fields and scenic walking paths and people of all shapes and sizes and modesty levels strutting their exercising selves along the promenades. There were palm trees and eucalyptus trees and jacarandas and bougainvilleas. Much to my surprise, I actually started day dreaming about what it might be like to live in Montevideo. Gotta admit, since I adore Woodhaven I rarely muse about living anywhere else.

Ready for food and beverage, our tour of 32 finally arrived at Establecimiento Juanico…Uruguay’s oldest and biggest winery that was established in 1849. The country’s biggest winery that inexplicably had absolutely no branded swag (did I mention capitalistic-ish?). We were told that 25% of the bottles of wine consumed in Uruguay come from Juanico. Personally, I think some branded baseball hats could help them grab even more market share.

We stopped in some vineyards, trying to wrap our heads around grapes ripening in late January. We sampled a few Tannat grapes right off the vine. Rob and I had heard of this French varietal…and had sampled it once…but we had no idea it was Uruguay’s premier grape and wine. And had certainly never had it in its rawest form.

Although the purple grapes were still about a month from being ripe, they were about the size of blueberries and were lightly sweet with about 3-4 seeds in each grape. Yes, I plucked enough to assess that average. What can I say…I was hungry. And thirsty.

We made our way to an old stone building where tables were set with real linens and multiple wine glasses. I snagged a photo of our beverage line-up and settled in.

We sampled a total of five wines: a Chardonnay (unoaked and very crisp like a Sauvignon Blanc); a Marselan which we had never heard of (a hybrid grape made from crossing Grenache with Cabernet Sauvignon which was surprisingly light and forgettable); a Tannat which smelled like dried fruit (raisins or prunes) and tasted sort of like a smoky fruit roll-up; a blend called Alianza that was a 50%-50% mix of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon; and a dessert wine that was a light ruby port made from Tannat grapes.

I was the only one at our table of eight that like the Alianza; it was big and fruity and sort of slapped me in the face (in the good way that bold wines can). However, when lunch was served I opted for the Tannat. I figured I should have the local specialty, plus it seemed to go best with meat. Because we had a LOT of meat.

Lunch was overwhelming. I kept eating yet they kept bringing food. I have photos of my plate before, during, and after I was finished and you really can’t tell the difference. We had chicken, pork, two types of beef, sausage, sweet potatoes, crispy potatoes, a quiche thing, several types of veggie slaws, cheese, bread, salami… It was all quite delicious and tasted like an authentic Uruguayan meal – as if I have anything to compare it to. I skipped dinner.

All of the meats were bar-b-qued. The meat had such a unique flavor – sort of sweet and citrusy – I asked what wood was used in the grill. The answer: old grape vines that had been trimmed throughout the vineyard. I was told at home they would use eucalyptus, but for special occasions with visitors, they used the grape wood. WOW!

The most unique part of the meal, however, was something I never ever ever thought I would try. In the spirit of my vacation philosophy of “Do what you can’t do at home,” I tried sweet bread. No, I’m not talking pastry. I mean that part of a cow you don’t even want to think about eating. The part of the cow that the cow can’t think about you eating because you are eating its thinking parts.

Yes, I ate cow brain.

And would you believe…it was really good?!? So good, in fact, that I had seconds?!? Yes, I eat some weird stuff (186 days ‘til Fair!) but this is probably the top of my Strange Foods list.

If you look closely at the photo above, you can see it does indeed look like brain with its squiggles and curly-cues. And as you might imagine (or not), it was a bit chewy…sort of like squeaky cheese curds. Flavor-wise, it honestly tasted bacony with a hint of lemon zest. Which is why I had a second hunk. Mind you, I wasn’t eating lobes of it; just a couple squiggles. But it was good enough, I wouldn’t think twice about having it again…unlike the cow.

Vacations are awesome!

We have one more port to go before we start the long trek home. Stay tuned!

UPDATE: Thanks to some Googling, I have just learned that sweetbread is NOT cow brain. It’s pancreas. All these years I’ve been avoiding the wrong bovine organ. Moo!

Saturday, January 27, 2018

A day at the rookery

We are back in Argentina today after our brief foray to the UK. Our port was a very industrial town called Puerto Madryn that was settled in the 1800s by a bunch of Welsh farmers who were totally misled about the supposedly rich soil here. The sad truth is, nothing really grows here.

The key industry in Puerto Madryn is aluminum processing. Not because they have a lot of aluminum; they just have a fancy factory and a deep port that allows ships from Australia to bring the raw material for processing.

And that’s about all I remember about Puerto Madryn. Well, that and the roaming homeless dogs and the trash strewn about because of the rather constant wind. But it was a warm wind! I wore shorts and sunscreen today for the first time all trip. Whoo hoo!

I quickly concluded that Puerto Madryn is Argentina’s Pocatello, Idaho. By that I mean, the best thing the town has going for it is that you can be in much better places in about two hours in any direction. It’s a great jumping-off point and not a place you’d really feel inspired to linger in.

Our tour (Purple #4) took us south to a penguin rookery.

Rookery! Isn’t that a fun word? For some reason, I imagine a bunch of penguins playing cards or billiards. What it really means is it was a protected colony of about 500,000 Magellanic penguins. Yes, I typed that correctly. Half a million penguins! We only saw maybe 2,000 of them but, ummm…2,000 penguins!!!

Today’s penguin experience (and truly, every day should have one) was totally different than a couple of days ago. Today was like the Grand Canyon whereas Bluff Cove in the Falkland Islands was like Bryce Canyon.

Bryce Canyon – and Bluff Cove – is smaller, easier to grasp, more photogenic. The Grand Canyon – and The Rookery – is massive, hard to comprehend, and an overwhelming display of nature.

After our 2.5-hour bus ride through the wind-blown, grassy, shrubby, green and yellow steppe of Patagonia, we arrived at the rookery’s walking path about 1 mile from the beach. The path was wooden slats, rocks, or dirt but always clearly marked and occasionally patrolled by Penguin Protectors (best job ever).

We were given 90 minutes to explore on our own and take as many photos as our memory cards would allow. We were instructed not to get more than about 3 feet from the penguins, not to touch them, and to allow them to cross our path with a wide berth. From this I understood one thing very clearly: we were going to get tantalizingly close to penguins!!!!

And indeed we did!

The little black and while Magellanic penguins were EVERYWHERE! Lots of adults, lots of fuzzy chicks probably 2-3 months old, and a fair amount of punk rock molting going on.

But unlike Bluff Cove, the setting for these penguins was that same grassy, shrubby steppe we saw on our way in from town. Not in the water, not on a grassy berm, not on the beach. These penguins had burrowed homes in the ground, some holes out in the open, many under small shrubs and bushes, all at least one mile from the ocean. It was so odd!

It was about 75 degrees with a very nice breeze but many penguins were enjoying the shade. Once we knew what to look for, we realized pretty much every low sagey green bush had a penguin or four hanging out underneath. It was mindboggling.

There was still lots of activity, though. Hundreds of penguins waddling, preening, feeding young. And the noise! Oh my gosh, it was a hysterical symphony of babies chirping and adults calling to their partners with a noise best described as a braying donkey. I recorded a video. It sounds like a bunch of seagulls even though that description didn’t even occur to me in the moment.

As we walked along, we had to stop a few times to allow a penguin to cross our path. A number of us acted as self-appointed Penguin Ambassadors and held back other tourists as the birds waddled by. If the commute didn’t suck so bad, I would have considered my actions as a job audition.

The walking path ended on a platform above the water. From there we were able to watch the penguins waddle up to the surf and sort of schlump into the water. They then swam in the ocean like ducks, their necks much narrower than they look on land when standing upright. Rob and I realized that a number of “ducks” we saw swimming in the waters the other evening as we left the Falkland Islands were actually penguins. OMG!

One of the very best moments, however, came just at the tail end of our penguin trek.

We took a little side path and discovered two very proximate, very regal, very fiber-wafting-in-the-breeze guanacos. Guanacos hanging out with penguins!!! Right in front of us!! Seeing the two together…and getting the photo…was like that time at the Fair a few years ago when I got a photo of Rojo the Llama with the Fair Court. Camelids with adorable matchy-matchy creatures! OMG!

All those dots in the background are penguins!

Rob asked me which I liked best – Bluff Cove or the Magellanic Rookery. My real answer is I loved the combination of both. They were so different, it’s hard to choose between them.

Bluff Cove was magical. It was personal. It was like friends had invited us over to see their most prized possessions. It was penguins in the setting I think I expected: on the beach, in the water, with colorful contrasts of grass and ocean and sky and penguin.

The Rookery was exponential nature. It was thousands of penguins in an expansive, somewhat controlled setting. It was noisy. It smelled fishy. It was life. It was dynamic. It was in a totally unexpected, monochrome setting.

I came unglued and was utterly enthralled at Bluff Cove. I was quiet and thoughtful and blinking at the Rookery. I don’t think I would have appreciated either experience as much if I had not had the other as added perspective.

As is so much of life.

We are at sea tomorrow and then on to our fourth country of the trip before returning one last time to Argentina. Stay tuned!

Friday, January 26, 2018

A Dream Come True!

There are so many places I could start this entry but the only one that truly makes sense is:


Like hundreds of penguins! In their natural habitat! Roaming free in the ocean! Hanging out on the beach! Waddling to and fro! Feeding their young! Preening! Sleeping! Squawking! Keeping their babies warm under their fuzzy tummies!


Our tour yesterday was the one I have been eagerly anticipating and worrying about most.

We were on the Falkland Islands – which I had forgotten belonged to the UK (sorry, Argentina) – and booked on a highly reviewed and quickly sold-out penguin tour to a private hunk of land called Bluff Cove Lagoon.

I booked the tour almost a year ago. I chose it because it promised proximate viewing of two types of penguins: the Gentoo (noted for their orange beaks and feet) and the King (smaller versions of the sunset-colored Emperors).

I fretted about the tour because to access the cove, we had to (some would say “got to”) go off-roading through ditches and ravines and over rocks in rugged 4x4 Land Rovers. Everything I read about this tour – the Princess description, the TripAdvisor reviews, the tour tickets – warned it was NOT for people with back or neck conditions. Because, you know, penguins don’t naturally congregate in paved parking lots.

I really struggled with booking this tour. I mean really struggled.

On the one hand, going off-roading is a clearly stupid idea with titanium in one’s back. Every sign pointed to my back being in a heap of pain after, if not during, the tour. The tour was such a questionable idea, I told practically nobody of my plans. I knew everyone would try to talk me out of it, with logic and facts I could not dispute.

On the other hand, I have been saying “no” to experiences for half of my life because of my back. I have had to be a grown up and all mature and forego activities that I know would bring my spirit joy. For 25 years. I did not want my back to win this one.

I adore penguins (I had a sizable collection of penguin figurines, knick-knacks, t-shirts, etc. when I was a teenager). I could not bear being this close to the adorable waddles-in-the-wild and pass up the opportunity because of my titanium.

So…I took every precaution I could. I brought special pillows and cushions in the Land Rover. I positioned myself in the front seat so I could use the door and center console as stabilizers. I had a heat wrap. I was medicated. I prayed.

And a day later…I’m fine. Sore, yes. Horizontal and medicated and re-charging my TENS unit, yes. But broken? Not even close. And my spirit is SOARING!!!


After a dental-work-rattling ride that bumped my sunglasses off my head, we finally arrived at the grassy knoll teeming with penguins. I turned around and looked at Rob in the Land Rover’s back seat with my jaw dropped and my eyes sparkling.


This was news to absolutely nobody but it still seemed worthy of breathless announcement.

We got out of the vehicle. A naturalist started talking. I have no idea what he said because PENGUINS!

There were hundreds of them on the grass just up from the sandy beach. OH MY GAWD!

Being birds of a feather, they had organized themselves into three groups. The farthest group was sort of nature’s outcasts: they hadn’t mated and therefore had no babies to tend to. They seemed happy enough, I didn’t fear for their self-esteems.

Another group closer to us consisted of parents with tiny, fuzzy chicks under their bellies or eggs incubating on top of their feet.

The third group was older chicks who were full of fuzz and were begging me to pet them while they waited for their parents to come back from the ocean with dinner. I resisted trying to touch the grey and white fuzz balls but it took a lot of grown-up will power.

Almost all of the penguins were Gentoos. They were about as tall as my knee. There was a group of about a dozen King penguins mingled in. The Kings were a bit taller (maybe to my mid-thigh) and were absolutely gorgeous with the iconic red/orange/yellow patches on their heads and necks.

And then later, down at the ocean’s edge, we spotted one pair of Magellanic penguins. They were the smallest of the three types (maybe 6 inches shorter than the Gentoos) and were all black and white with white stripes on their heads and from their necks to their fins.

I stood at the edge of the small white plastic flags marking a barrier and just stared with utter amazement. The penguins were unbelievably adorable!

They fluffed their feathers, they preened, some slept or sunbathed belly-down, young ones tussled with their beaks, adults sat still with purpose as they protected their babies. All just penguins doing their penguin thing without much regard for the gawking tourists with cameras and stuffed pigs.

I focused just enough on the naturalist to hear him say “…. parents coming up from the beach with food this time of day…” I swiveled my head towards the water and giggled uncontrollably as I saw a small line of parent penguins waddling their way across the beach towards us.


I watched as one realized it had to go past me to get to its hungry chick. I stayed as still as I could, despite trembling with glee, as the penguin ignored the white flags and waddled about three feet away from me!! I decided not to take pictures and instead experienced the moment as fully as I could. IT WAS INCREDIBLE!!

I had a really difficult time tearing myself away from the penguin groups on the grass, but the naturalist insisted that it was worth trekking down to the water’s edge to see the penguins come in from a day of fishing.

It was all I could do not to run on the sand once I saw what was happening down on the beach.

There were no flags, no barriers, just us and the penguins. There were maybe a dozen of them standing on the sand preening or shaking ocean water off their feathers before waddling off to find their young.

Rob pointed out to the water.

“I think that’s one coming in right now.”


Cue more uncontrollable giggling.

I just could not get enough of the penguins! I smiled. I giggled. I teared up. I took a zillion photos and videos. I kissed Rob repeatedly, thanking him for being willing to go on this trip with me. I acted exactly like I’ve seen so many people respond the first time they meet Rojo the Llama after cyber stalking him for months or years. I get it, Rojo Fans. I so totally, utterly, completely get it.

We were the last Bluff Cove Penguin tour of the day, which wasn’t my choice. But thanks to some scheduling issues a few days ago, it’s where Princess put us. I can’t thank them enough.

Because we were at the cove so late in the day, we got to see the penguins come in from fishing. The morning clouds had burned off and we had spectacular sun and blue skies against the backdrop of green grass and black and white penguins. We had a chance to meet Kevin, the owner, and sincerely thank him for sharing his property and allowing me to experience penguins in the wild. So grateful we were the last ones there.

There were other parts to the day. We spent the morning on a tour of the eastern Falkland Island where the 1982 war with Argentina was fought. It was very weird to be on battlefields of a war I actually remember happening, albeit from the spotty interest of a 14-year-old.

The tour was very interesting, guided by a man who was one of the war’s casualties (he lost an eye and gained some shrapnel when his sheep farm was misidentified as an Argentine camp). I followed most of his information and strategy up until we were getting dangerously close to needing to be back in town for our penguin tour. Thereafter I was only a tiny bit distracted.

The main town of Stanley was super duper small and very quaint. The house roofs were all painted different colors to bring some happy to the otherwise monotone landscape of cement-colored rocks and yellow/green squishy bogs.

The residents all have British accents and use a currency linked to the British pound that is useless off the islands. I overheard several tourists with British accents saying how much they liked Stanley. “I have no idea why I like it so much.” And then answering her own question, “It just feels like home.”

Rob and I were on the very last tender to leave Stanley for our ship (the Emerald Princess was anchored off shore about a 20-minute boat ride away). I managed to beg my way into a closed gift shop so I could buy a souvenir penguin I had spotted earlier. I didn’t want to buy it until I saw a real penguin in real life. The Falkland Islands were sorry to see me go. So much penguin gear coming home to Woodhaven!!

Back on board and enjoying a glass of wine on our balcony, Rob and I were treated to one last surprise to cap a truly spectacular day.

With binoculars, we were able to see colonies of penguins all along the beaches of the east Falkland Island as we headed out to sea (once again, the port side of the ship ROCKS!). And then we saw penguins swimming in the ocean on their way back to the beach (they reportedly go out as far as 5 miles to feed). And then we saw about five whales. And then three black and white dolphins put on a Sea World-quality jumping show near the bow of the ship.

Speechless. And so utterly grateful for days like this and for my life on this beautiful planet.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

‘Rounding the Horn

When I first started mentioning this trip to friends, there was one comment that seemed universal: “Whoa, I’ve heard the seas are rough around Cape Horn.”

I honestly hadn’t given that part of our itinerary much thought. I knew the area was somewhat infamous for eating ships. And I knew that there are some bragging rights if you’ve “Sailed Around the Horn.” But other than that, I just thought the idea of sailing through the waters where the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean mix and mingle sounded like a Life’s Bucket List item.

And so it was!

We left Ushuaia last night and made the very slow trek southeastward towards the southernmost continental point of land on the planet other than Antarctica. Our arrival in the waters near the noteworthy island point was estimated for 8:00am. We set the alarm for 6:30am. I took Vitamin D(ramamine) at 6:45am.

Despite a call to the front desk, it wasn’t clear what our route would be and what would be visible from our port side balcony. So we took showers, got dressed, abandoned our plans for breakfast delivery, wasted time combing hair, and were up on deck by 7:30am.

It was just a touch windy.

The Chilean naval station was easy to spot with its antennas and small building (Cape Horn is governed by Chile). The Cape Horn light house was much more difficult to locate, looking like a tiny sheep grazing on the shoulder of the Isla de Hornos.
We stumbled from one side of Deck 16 to the other, finding the best views that also were somewhat protected from the gale Force 11 “Violent Storm” wind and the occasional rain drop.

As we sailed into a slightly protected area, I realized we could have stayed in our room as the best views coming into Cape Horn were on the left side. But by that time we were committed to experiencing all that we could of this totally wild part of the planet. Sipping juice and noshing on croissants while gazing out the window at the harsh elements seemed to be missing the point of being here.

The captain did a slow doughnut so we could all see the east side of Cape Horn. We then headed out of the protected-ish bay so we could get face-to-face with The Cape.

The area around Cape Horn is a collection of small islands and smaller rocks that sort of stepping-stone their way out to the Southern Ocean (the name given the waters around Antarctica). Most of the islands are green and yellowish, rocky, and moderately tall with a few that are definitely the last remnants of the Andes mountain range.

The island of Cape Horn itself looks like a really big, green rock. It is quite pretty with deep crevices that reminded me a bit of the Na Pali Coast in Kauai.

Although some wildlife sightings were mentioned as possibilities, the only thing we saw was a lot of albatrosses flying around. I had never seen that type of bird before; they are quite graceful. They look like white potatoes with really long, aerodynamic wings that look like blades on modern-day windmills. They flew all around the area and a number of them seemed to use our ship as a shelter from the gusting winds.

Oh my, the winds.

We were on deck for mere seconds before our jackets were zipped, our hoods were cinched, and we were holding onto the railings for stability. It was very dangerous to walk around; I didn’t see anyone fall but Rob is going to have an impressive bruise on his arm from being blown into a handrail.

The wind naturally caused the waves to be a bit choppy. The waves were reported to be 12-18 feet. The ship listed pretty heavily to the port side. Water was pouring out of the pools. Walking around felt like walking in a carnival fun house. It was a blast!

We motored out to the area where the captain had planned to do another doughnut so that the folks on the left side could see Cape Horn up close and personal. But the winds were too dangerous to do a spin. Had we stayed in our port side room, this would have been the moment we would have needed to leave to see what was going on.

The captain announced that the winds were about 65 knots (75 mph) and were considered hurricane-force; it was not safe to spin. With a calming British accent, the captain assured us the ship was safe, the weather typical, the stabilizers doing their job. But to be safe, instead of turning around in front of the island, we were going to literally sail all the way around the island. Not just ‘rounding the Horn…going all the way AROUND the Horn!! Rob and I high-fived our good luck with hands that weren’t holding on for safety.

I was holding the camera level

The ship corkscrewed its way towards the back of the island. By corkscrewing, I mean when the ship’s bow lifted up in the water, it got blown sideways by the wind and then landed back in the water making a bit of an arc. The movement of the bow of the ship with the waves making it pitch up and down and the wind making it move sideways meant that the nose of the ship spiraled through the turbulent waters. Thanks to our very calm captain, I found the experience very exhilarating and exciting and not the least bit scary. Really!

I simply can not fathom what these waters are like in the winter or tackling them in a 17th century wooden ship. Even with juice and croissants. Those early explorers were a special breed of human.

We are now in the Atlantic Ocean heading northeastward towards the Falkland Islands, our next port. The word for tomorrow is PENGUINS!!!!!

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

It’s The End of the World

And I feel fine!

So far 50 is pretty awesome. I will admit, the closer I got to the half-century mark, the older it started to sound. And the less it seemed possible to have it describe my age. Most days, my spirit feels about 30. My body occasionally feels about 75, so I guess 50 averages out. It still feels a little weird to finally be here, though.

My birthday began in dramatic fashion as I pulled open our cabin’s curtains. We still had about 90 minutes before we would be in “Glacier Alley” as we headed to our southernmost port of Ushuaia. I wasn’t sure what I would see slowly motoring past our balcony so early.

Well, we were ahead of schedule and what greeted me was a wall of beautiful blue, crevassed ice cascading into the water about a ship’s length away from me. I literally gasped. I had never seen glaciers so close while still in my pajamas.

We watched as three more glaciers appeared like roadside waterfalls. Each was a little different; some wide, some narrow. Some dropping like cliffs into the water, some slowly descending. The glaciers were so beautiful and so close, I wondered why we made all that effort to see the Amalia Glacier a few days ago; a glacier that was so familiar as to be somewhat forgettable.

My only guess why a bigger deal wasn’t made of “Glacier Alley” (it was a passing mention by the port expert during an earlier lecture and only had a brief note in the daily schedule) was that only the people on the left side of the ship could see it.

At the Amalia Glacier, we did a full spin and entered and departed along the same route so everyone could eventually get a view and photos. Glacier Alley, on the other hand, was simply a perk for the port side passengers so Princess apparently didn’t make a big deal about it.

I’m still patting myself on the back for getting a port side room. So far, it’s definitely been the preferred side to be on, Glacier Alley being high on the list of reasons (the main reason we chose the left side was that it is the land-facing side the entire trip so it has more interesting views on At Sea days).

We arrived in the Argentinian city of Ushuaia (ooo-SHWEYE-ahh) a little before noon as scheduled. However, the winds were too strong – with gusts to 35 knots or 40 mph – for the ship to safely approach the dock. So the Emerald Princess did a big doughnut in the harbor (some of it by wind power) to kill time, allowing all of us to get an unscheduled view of the southernmost city in the world.

Ushuaia is very picturesque. The Beagle Channel (named after the boat that carried Charles Darwin on his scientific explorations down here) is on one side and the last mountains of the Andes range tower behind the city. The population is mostly in the flatland but some buildings and homes sit a little higher up so they can look south towards Antarctica. The mountains are so tall, they have a very definitive tree line above which nothing can grow. The top third or so looks barren and very jaggedy like a saw and is topped with snow that never melts.

We had about 90 minutes to wander around town on our own before our tour. We quickly discovered the town is a little hilly. Nothing on the scale of San Francisco or Seattle but enough that many sidewalks had cement steps built into them. We managed them easily since we have been conditioning on the ship for the past week (we are averaging 2.5 miles of walking per day; we believe we should get a 50% bonus for stairs, carpeted or not).

I tried very hard to find some souvenirs depicting the city’s self-assigned moniker of “The End of the World.” I thought it would be hysterical to acquire such an item on my 50th birthday. Disappointingly, nothing really caught my eye. All I have to show for as bragging rights for being in the southernmost point of substantial civilization is a sticker. Go me and my subpar shopping skillz!

We had lunch on our own. We wandered around trying to remember the name of the pub my dad suggested from the time he was in Ushuaia with my grandma (the Antarctica trip they took when Grandma was 79). Instead, we found ourselves in a pizza joint ordering a ham and pineapple pizza. As totally Western United States as that sounds, it was a unique experience.

Instead of tomato sauce, the cheese and toppings were sitting on an olive oil base. The cheese was thick and chewy, the ham was lightly sweet and higher quality than anything we get at home, and the pineapple was full rings instead of small triangular chunks. The center of each pineapple ring was decorated with a maraschino cherry. It was a pineapple upside down (pizza) pie! It was very festive and was unexpectedly delicious. While not anywhere near an authentic Argentinian meal (we will have those later in the trip), it was just the unfamiliar familiarity our taste buds and GI tracts were craving.

Due to our hour late, wind-driven arrival into Ushuaia, all the tours ended up running behind schedule. We didn’t know this, of course, until we were already in line on the dock outside the ship. We were standing in what was essentially a wind tunnel created by the Emerald Princess and three other smaller ships that were bound for Antarctica (we were told that 85% of boats that leave out of Ushuaia are heading to Antarctica about 600 miles south).

Although we were given the option to wait for our bus inside the shelter of Deck 4, Rob and I opted to stand outside in the whipping cold breeze to try to get an appreciation for the weather here at the End of the World. We are weather nerds after all. What’s the point in coming all the way down here to look it at through windows? Bring on the wind!

When I was packing and checking average temperatures for ports along our trip, the lowest temperature I saw was the low-40s. Having recently survived Omaha in December, I figured a couple layering jackets and some long sleeve shirts would suffice. And they would were it not for the wind that I did not factor in…at all. It is a cold and biting wind, either whisking off the Antarctic or swirling around the ocean without any land to slow it down. It is harsh and unrelenting.

My two coats, two hoods, scarf, and gloves worked well enough. But a knit hat and some fleece-lined shirts would have been wise additions to my suitcase. As would have some hair clips or a headband. So much silver hair dancing in my eyes!

Our tour was ok not great. It was a simple bus tour to the Tierra del Fuego National Park and the official end of the Pan American Highway (it starts in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska). It’s as close to the end of the world you can get by car so I decided that would be a fitting way to commemorate my 50th birthday.

The park was pretty enough, with some streams and lakes and huge mountains. The mountains somehow seem not quite as enormous as the ones in Alaska or the Canadian Rockies. They are more brown and less grey than those North American versions. The Andes are also a lot more sawtoothy on the top, making photographing them somewhat addictive.

In addition to learning about the beech trees that cover the island and park of Tierra del Fuego, we heard lots of familiar info about beavers…which are not native to this region. At all.

To try to increase the fur trade here, 50 Canadian beavers were let loose on the island of Tierra del Fuego in the 1940s. Without any natural predators, the beavers now number in the hundreds of thousands and grow as large as Golden Retrievers. I was quite disappointed not to see one of these Rodents of Unusual Size.

As we bumped along the Pan American Highway to its terminus, I realized my Westernized American mind assumed that something called a Highway would be paved. And in the parts through Denver and Albuquerque, I’m sure it is. But here in southern Argentina, the road is all dirt and gravel and dust. So much dust. Nevertheless, arriving at the end was cause for celebration and photos, even if we had only driven on a handful of miles of it…unlike the quite broken-in minivan we saw sporting a British Columbia license plate.

We got back to the ship right on time despite leaving an hour late. I do wonder what parts of our tour we didn’t see. The cruise line was very generous and comped us $20 each for the inconvenience of arriving late and throwing the day off schedule. And we didn’t even complain! Good job, Princess! We’ve already spent our goodwill refund on wine. Cheers!

The ship ended up leaving port about 30 minutes late due to a small group of people on a private tour. Although the ship doesn’t typically wait, our itinerary allowed some wiggle room. This was explained by the captain over the loudspeaker to all 3000 passengers minus 6.

Rob and I watched the ship’s webcam and sure enough, six harried figures eventually appeared, running towards the ship. Reports are they were greeted to waves and cheers by at least 1,000 folks on the starboard side. Note to self: never be late to the ship…for so very many reasons.

We ended the night with a lovely birthday dinner at one of the specialty restaurants on board. I was serenaded by four waiters in varying accents and was given an enormous hunk of chocolate cake which we will enjoy after dinner tonight.

All in all, a fantastic way to kick off my next half-century of walking this beautiful planet.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Farewell to Chile

As I added our “Green 20” tour sticker to our collection this evening, Rob looked at me and blinked, “Was today really only our second port?!?”

Indeed it was. And it was an exceptionally fun day. But yes, with all the At Sea days and weather goings-on, this cruise has certainly seemed longer than just two ports. We are not complaining, mind you. Just noting.

Today was our last day in Chile. And thankfully the last day Rob can say…as the cold ocean breeze makes me shiver… “Wow, it sure is Chile here!”

Har har.

Today’s port was Punta Arenas, the largest city in the region at about 125,000 residents. Its name means “sandy point” which is largely appropriate. We spent pretty much the entire day on a tour. Our only solo activity was walking to a supermarket near the pier in search of my newest favorite condiment.

My latest addiction (since I can’t have banana chocolate truffles) is a chili-based vinegary hot sauce that has been served at both tour lunches. Today’s server was kind enough to let me sneak a peek of a bottle of “Aji Pebre.” She was all covert and looked over her shoulder as she let me take a picture because didn’t really want all the other tourists to know this local favorite was squeezed out of a bottle much like ketchup.

So yes, while other tourists were busy in the booze aisle of the supermarket snagging bottles of Chilean wine and Pisco, I was giddily snatching up two bottles of hot sauce. Mmmmm.

Today’s outing was officially billed as “Patagonia Estancia and City Drive” which forced me to learn two things right off the bat.

First, “Patagonia” is not just a brand of outdoor gear. It is also a region here at the bottom of South America that spans both Chile and Argentina. It isn’t a town or a state or a country; it’s more of an area like we might say “the Midwest.” Patagonia doesn’t get especially warm but it does get especially windy, making the brand name for hearty jackets and boots and such very appropriate.

Second, “estancia” is not just a brand name of industrial wine from California. It is also the Spanish word for “farm.” In today’s case, a sheep farm which was about 50 miles…25 paved, 25 gravel…outside of Punta Arenas.

We boarded our tour bus at about 8:30am and headed north of the Strait of Magellan into the country side. I’m normally not a big fan of arid landscape but the “pampa” (treeless grassland) was unexpectedly beautiful.

The landscape was very flat with occasional slow-rising hills. It vaguely of reminded me of the long flat plains of Arizona. The ground was green and yellow, and the plants were mostly low shrubs in browns and greys and sage. Watching the pampa pass from the bus window was hypnotic.

Rob also pointed out the clouds. They were so strange. Well, the clouds were actually very similar to those high, wavy, rolling clouds we see at home. What was so weird was these clouds were super low. So low I almost felt like I should duck my head. There was still lots of visibility; it was just that clouds that usually feel like they are miles up in the sky seemed like they were hundreds of feet above us instead.

I asked my Weather Geek hubby about this. He was mystified, too. His best guess is the crazy winds down here do things to clouds that we don’t see at home. Between that and seeing my shadow on the wrong side, it’s a bit disorienting down here.

My wonderment about the pampa and clouds and shadows was interrupted a few times by totally unexpected wildlife.

The first general excitement was when the bus stopped so we could all take pictures of some wild rheas. No, not the actress from “Cheers.” These were grey birds that looked a LOT like emus. They are cousins of those tasty critters although a bit smaller. The rheas were pecking around the pampa mostly oblivious to our cameras.

We also saw some black and white birds that we were assured were NOT penguins. And some black-necked swans that were portaging their young chicks on their backs.

Nobody else on the bus came suitably unglued like me, though, when the driver stopped to allow us photos of a small herd of grazing guanacos. GUANACOS!! OMG!!

These are the oft-forgotten cousins of llamas and alpacas. I had only seen photos of these adorable creatures and grouped them with vicunas as “exotic camelids I shall never see in the wild.” Well, the joke is on me! I saw them!! Munching wildly in the pampa of Patagonia! And I got photos! They even started walking towards me (ok, fine towards the bus) because they knew I was their people. I’m sure the alpaca stitched on my baseball hat helped them feel the kismet.

I really haven’t stopped smiling ever since. GUANACOS!!!!!

Ok, fine. Back to the tour.

We arrived at the estancia after about 90 minutes of travel on the highway, on a gravel road, and loading the tour bus on a small ferry to cross an inlet to an island. I don’t recall the tour being described as “off the beaten path” but it certainly was.

Much like the ranch in Puerto Montt, the estancia was owned and run by a large Chilean family. They sort of fell into offering tours after the patriarch’s business partner asked if he could bring some important associates from Santiago because they wanted to eat “real sheep” that was raised on the farm. The meal was such a success, the partner kept bringing urban guests the 1,900 miles for the authentic Patagonian culinary experience. Fifteen years later, the family is now catering to tourists sporting fanny packs, selfie-sticks, and cruise line tote bags. Ah, progress.

The farm and the family were absolutely delightful. I truly felt like I was a guest in their home. They were charming and accommodating and welcoming.

They showed us their father’s eclectic collection of farm tools. The son-in-law demonstrated how to shear a sheep the old-fashioned way using long scissors. The niece told us the sentimental story of the gorgeous small chapel on their property made entirely of logs that the father built for his daughter who had always dreamed of getting married on the estancia. And we all wanted to hug and snuggle with the purring 16-year-old puma that they rescued when she was orphaned as a baby (sadly she was behind a fence so all snuggles were virtual).

With hopes of being able to stomach eating the lamb lunch, I elected not to take the tour of the bar-b-que pit which looked to have sheep carcasses hanging about. Instead, I snagged a welcome glass of Pisco Sour (so totally a fan!) and made my way to our table whose legs were protected with sheep skin booties to avoid scratching the tile floor. I guess when you have so much fresh wool laying around, you start to get creative.

The lunch was very tasty – more Aji Pebre! – and the Chilean house wine was dangerously sippable. As I was standing in line to sample the lamb, the brother working the bar-b-que asked the lady in front of me if she wanted a piece of skin. He waved his tongs with charred sheep skin near the woman’s plate. I’m proud to say I did not act on my impulse to run screaming in vegetarian horror.

Instead, I asked for a very small piece of meat and ladled some more Aji Pebre on my plate just in case.

Although I couldn’t finish it – I just couldn’t get past the intense lamby, gamey flavor – I will say that it was the best lamb I didn’t like. I could tell it was very well prepared; it was moist and juicy and tender. And fresh. So very very fresh. Oy.

Most of us snoozed on the way back to the pier; some of us were still giddy about guanacos. Some of us still are.


Tomorrow is a big day. It is our first stop in Argentina. And my first day being 50. WHOO HOO!

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Swaying with joy!

Remember a few weeks ago when Rob and I went to Nebraska during minus teens temperatures? And how he was sort of disappointed it wasn’t colder until we went outside past midnight in t-shirts and sweatpants to experience -20 with wind chill?

The Weather Geek Rob is so happy right now!

We are still in the Pacific Ocean heading south towards Punta Arenas, Chile. We took a slight detour this morning to see a glacier (more about that in a minute) and were therefore treated to calm inlets and peaceful channels for several hours.

But as soon as we wound our way back to the ocean, the Emerald Princess was gob smacked with lots of wind and big, undulating waves. We’ve even got some light, sideways rain pelting the windows. Just as southern South America should be.

Rob is in bliss!

I am utterly confused how the early explorer Balboa decided THIS was the calm ocean (“Pacifico” is calm/peace in Spanish – and rumors have it Balboa was much farther north when he misnamed the ocean). I’ve been in some rough waters before but this cruise is the winner by far…and we still have two more days before we hit the notoriously wild Cape Horn. Rob is thrilled. I’m counting Dramamine pills.

In all honesty, I’m having a blast, too.

At about 11:30 this morning, Rob and I were attending different lectures (his about a guy named Shackleton who was stranded in Antarctica for 3 years during WWI; mine about the Top Ten Cruises Princess recommends we take. Yes, I emerged with a few ideas…). An announcement from the Captain interrupted both presentations.

Although neither of us had felt it, apparently the wind suddenly doubled from about 30 knots to about 60 knots and the ship was listing to the right. I popped out of my seat to look out the window and sure enough, there was a bit more sky and a bit less ocean out the port side. The captain assured us that this is very typical for this area and the stabilizers should be in full operation shortly. He didn’t seem worried, so I turned my attention back to cruises of Greenland.

In the few hours since we re-entered the Pacific, the barf bags have reappeared, the outside walking deck is closed, the pools have been drained, and everyone is stumbling around like they are drunk. Rob and I already noticed people sporting new wrist and knee braces and arm slings a couple of days ago. I’m guessing more signs of injury will be appearing soon.

It is very tricky walking around right now. It’s bad enough, I am tempted to suspend my “No Elevator Rule” for fear of stumbling down the many flights of carpeted stairs that I count on to work off the croissants and gelato. Instead, I have opted to just hang out in our cabin and avoid walking altogether. Earlier today, I thought the back of the ship was better than the front. Then I thought lower was better than higher. Right now, I think just staying put is the safest option.

Even so, reclining here on the couch looking out the cabin window, a closet door keeps banging open and closed as I watch the railing on our balcony dip and pitch upwards. We are surrounded by whitecaps, and ocean spray from waves six floors down occasionally comes into view. The sky is filled with white and grey clouds and the horizon is only slightly greyer.

Thanks to Dramamine, we are absolutely loving it!!

I should say here that I would absolutely not recommend this cruise as a first or second vacation on the seas. If I had never been on a cruise before, I would be so disappointed and confused right now. There’s no lounging by the pool or romantic strolls on deck or cute dresses wafting in the breeze. It’s all about long sleeves and Dramamine and clinging to handrails.

All for the love of penguins.

Speaking of cruising before: we saw a glacier this morning.

We set our alarm for 6:40am so we could be conscious albeit unshowered for the promised 7:00am viewing of the Amalia Glacier.

When we opened our eyes and our curtains, I could have sworn we were in Alaska. The fjords of the Southern Patagonia Ice Field look suspiciously like the fjords of Alaska, especially Alaska’s Tracy Arm Fjord which is a most beautiful spot on Planet Earth.

The captain was kind enough to do a slow doughnut so we could all get photos. It was a cloudy morning but we had just enough sunlight to still see that vivid turquiosey blue color that is unique to glacier crevasses. Sadly no calving and we didn’t see any notable wildlife.

While it was very pretty, and I especially appreciated the calm waters, the Amalia Glacier will likely be an “oh, yeah, that’s right” memory from this trip.

Tomorrow is our last stop in Chile. We will be taking a tour involving sheep. Stay tuned!